Grief is not rational. It is 100% emotion. Emotions are usually not rational.
All change evokes a response. The change of grief multiplies these emotions and can leave us in a tangled mess of raw emotion.
Let’s take a look at some of these and examine how they may manifest, both rationally and irrationally.
Ah, the ugly one goes first. Society hushes anger, and tantrums are not welcome, especially in public.
Yet in grief, we are so very very very angry. However, the word “anger” doesn’t even begin to cover what we feel.
Look around at all the healthy, happy couples in the store, restaurant, subway, movies. See them smile, place items in their carts, laugh over a shared joke, point out the dinner specials, share popcorn.
Totally unfair, we think. Why do THEY get to go on with their happy lives while we are miserable? UNFAIR, we silently scream. My person didn’t deserve this, I didn’t deserve this. Anger builds until we find ourselves taking guilty pleasure in the fact that one day, one of those happy people will die and the other one will be all alone and crying and miserable and unhappy and ALONE like us. THERE !!!!! So take that, you happy people !!!
Or look around and see the unhappy couples bickering, and play that game again. UNFAIR !!! Why do those unhappy people who can’t stand each other get to live when my person had to die ??? UNFAIR !!!! My person and I were happy, we didn’t fight. Well, at least not in public. Again, rage builds and I’m wishing one of them dead.
Or, look around and see your friends becoming grandparents. UNFAIR !!!! I’ll never share that joy with my person. I’ve not only lost my person, I’ve lost my future joy with him.
Look around and see people who are mean, nasty, abusive. See the smokers, the obese, the addicts, the living who you judge should be dead. UNFAIR !!!! My person took care of himself, ate well, was a good, kind, generous and loving person.
Like all emotions, anger is neither good or bad. It just IS. It’s what we choose to do with it that makes anger destructive or constructive.
Welcoming ALL the feelings in grief, even anger, is critical to the process. Let’s look at how anger can be welcomed into our journey, and how it can be useful.
Like all emotions, anger serves a purpose in processing change. It can lead us to set boundaries, for example. Feeling angry is a warning sign that the situation is not healthy, and perhaps distance may be in order.
Anger can also help us identify our fears. Becoming upset seeing older happy couples, for example, can lead us to the real issue, fear of growing old alone.
While recognizing the positive aspects of anger, we need to be aware of anger’s ability to spontaneously combust . In grief, emotions are raw. Mental and physical exhaustion may inhibit our self control, leaving us feeling like a self-justified loose cannon. We see ourselves reacting disproportionately and even inappropriately, but our widow brain somehow can’t reach the controls to reel ourselves back in.
Justified, real, raw anger can be externalized and become RAGE, a powerful, extreme, volatile and uncontrolled anger. What does rage look like? What does it feel like ? Something like this:
I have never reacted with the degree of anger I have in my bones right now. My throat is tight, I am in a blind rage, and if I were an animal I would want to bite off someone’s head. Some of it is not rational, I know this, yet some of it makes perfect sense to me. Once I’m in the cycle, it’s a place of no return. My jaw is clenched, my nerves are activated, and I am just plain mad, mad, mad at everything! Frankly, I’m exhausted from being so angry. This is not who I used to be.
Or, anger can be internalized, and we fight to keep it hidden. Perhaps we were raised to never show anger, that it is “unladylike” or “ungentelmanly” Perhaps we fear that if we do let it out, we won’t be able to control it. Maybe we fear being judged as volatile, unstable, weak, or crazy.
Whether we internalize or externalize our anger, we still feel emotionally unbalanced Acting out or hiding your anger does not resolve our emotional response to change.
Unprocessed and stuffed anger can lead to health issues like high blood pressure, anxiety, cardiac problems and headaches. In grief, we must allow ourselves to feel all the feelings and process them.
In order to get a handle on our anger and find healthy ways of expressing it, we must take a hard look at it and find what is feeding it. We need to do some soul searching to become aware of other emotions at the root of our anger in grief.
Harriet Lerner, Ph.D.. in her best selling “The Dance of Anger” explains :
Anger is something we feel. It exists for a reason and always deserves our respect and attention. We all have a right to everything we feel–and certainly, our anger is no exception. There are questions about anger, however, that may be helpful to ask ourselves: “What am I really angry about?” “What is the problem, and whose problem is it?” “How can I sort out who is responsible for what?”
Let’s take a griever’s look at some of these and ask those hard questions of our souls.
What am I really angry about ? What is the problem ?
…..obviously, my person is dead.
Whose problem is it ?
….well, it’s mine. Because he’s dead, and I’m alive.
Who is responsible for what ?
OK, now we’re getting somewhere. I’m responsible because (choose what applies to you)
- I should have made him/her see a doctor
- I should have made him/her lose weight/eat better/exercise/stop smoking
- I should have been a better wife/husband. If I was, he/she would still be here
- I should have made him/her work less and enjoy life more. Now there is no more time.
- I should have been there when he/she collapsed, hit that tree, stopped breathing, etc because I could have saved them if I was there
All of these woulda coulda shoulda’s will be covered in the chapter on Bargaining, but for now let’s just assume that yes, you are responsible for every possible bad thing that led to your person’s death. So yes, you have every right to be angry at yourself.
Let’s find a scapegoat other than yourself and turn our anger on him/her. A common one, if you are a believer, is God. You can give him all the glory and find comfort in it all being His plan, or you can give Him a piece of your mind and get it off your chest, and blame Him for a stupid plan. Either way, your person is still dead.
Both of these scenarios depict a sense of helplessness. Blaming yourself for your person’s death turns your anger inward, punishing yourself for what your rational mind recognizes as inescapable. Call it fate, but humans don’t control it. Blaming God, or aquiescing to omnipotent will, creates de facto victimhood for both you and your person.
Regardless of the drawn conclusion, both scenarios invoke a loss of power and control, which can lead to despair. Fear of the unknown and random nature of life can lead to anxiety.
It leads to fear.